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  1. ITV Report

A Party Conference in the North should be about the North - this week is the time for action.

Armed police at the Conservative Party Conference at the Manchester Central Convention Complex in Manchester. Credit: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

By Daniel Hewitt, ITV Political Correspondent

In the city of the humble worker bee, the buzz at this week's Conservative Party conference will undoubtedly be around one B in particular.

His name is Boris and if the Sunday newspapers are to be believed, this not so humble member of the Tory hive, is working on a plan to overthrow Queen Theresa.

The foreign secretary is on manoeuvres. Other members of the cabinet are refusing to back the Prime Minister - punishment for a disastrous election campaign that has put her leadership on the brink and her party staring into the abyss.

It's a disaster that will probably overshadow any hope of any genuine debate in Manchester this week - on Brexit, on the future of the National Health Service, on housing and for us here in the North - promises made by this party about investment in transport and infrastructure.

A year ago in Birmingham Theresa May gave her first conference speech as leader - extraordinarily this week may be her last - but that speech marked a shift from the Northern Powerhouse agenda towards "the Midlands Engine." Remember that?

The Transport Secretary Chris Grayling talked about it in his speech, without even mentioning HS3 or uttering George Osborne's favourite phrase. The Chancellor Philip Hammond talked about the importance of the Midlands Engine, so to did the Prime Minister.

The gear change was obvious. Theresa May never much liked Mr Osborne, and his pet project wasn't popular with Mrs May's now former joint chief of staff Fiona Hill (indeed Mr Osborne told ITV Granada only last month that she attempted to "wipe it from history"). While her other ex-chief of staff, Nick Timothy, is a proud Brummie, born and bred - the power no doubt behind "the Midlands Engine" creation.

Claims that the Northern Powerhouse was being not so subtly powered-down were denied but had Theresa May won the stonking majority she was promised by the opinion polls, the direction of travel was obvious.

But she didn't. Hill and Timothy have gone, so too has the Tory's majority and if the party is to ever win it back, they need to win back seats in the North of England from Labour.

George Osborne understood that - the Northern Powerhouse was as much as anything a political strategy and it arguably helped his party to its first working majority in almost a quarter of a century. As soon as his project went missing, so too did a host of very important north-west constituencies.

Delegates need to get out of the city centre to find out what the real issues are Credit: PA

The focus for Tory MPs and delegates as they head north this week should be how to win them back. Unfortunately most of those MPs and delegates won't venture beyond the city centre to see just how desperate this region needs major transport investment. From the Midland Hotel they will see the city's shiny new trams in motion but that has little to do with their work and is little solace to those people outside the city centre who have to travel into Manchester on railway track not updated since the Victorian age. Or those who can get to London quicker than they can get to their homes after work less than 30 miles away.

Of course the question of leadership is vitally important, so to is Brexit and the NHS and housing and they should be debated. But surely a party conference held in the north of England should focus as much on the north of England?

A chance for Ministers to not just talk from podiums but stand on platforms and board trains and see what life is like for people who don't have the underground or Oyster cards or bullet trains from the suburbs or a joined up bus network.

A chance for Conservative backbench MPs who represent northern towns to come out and say what their constituents tell them - that rail electrification is needed now. That HS3, or Northern Powerhouse, is needed as much if not more so than HS2. That tunnels and roads need to be built so short distances from big cities like Manchester to Sheffield don't take over an hour on roads that close when it snows.

A chance for dates to be set on promises made. A time for action.

In June the Tories lost Bury North and Weaver Vale and Crewe and Warrington South and High Peak and Colne Valley and Stockton South. They lost more and they failed to win even more seats they needed to win.

They failed for many reasons. Theresa May herself is undoubtedly one of them. But whether it is her, or Boris Johnson, or someone else who leads the Conservatives into the next election, they will stand a better chance of winning by seriously engaging in a debate about the state of the North of England and what better place to start, than where the very idea of the Northern Powerhouse was born. In Manchester. Right now.

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